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PiP webinar: Warehouses to woo the public

The ‘big sheds’ holding wares for distribution aren’t often considered very aesthetically pleasing. But PiP’s webinar shows how such utilitarian projects can be interesting, intriguing and attractive

Warehouses and distribution centres are ever more ubiquitous, born of the digital economy. The anonymous roadside buildings contribute little joy to the built environment.

Exceptions do exist however, as shown in this PiP webinar, which uncovers award-winning buildings by leading architects and products by sponsors MSA and Tata Steel Europe. 

Sarah Featherstone, of Featherstone Young Architects, introduces VeloCity, an all-female multi-disciplinary team whose origins lie in a 2017 National Infrastructure Commission placemaking competition. This scoped the construction of 1 million new homes in the Oxford-Cambridge corridor, accompanying a rail investment. The team focused on villages, which have a strong sense of place but suffer from loss of community facilities, isolation, car dependence and low-density sprawl. By connecting rural settlements with a ‘fine-grain network of cycling and walking paths’, villages could support sustainable growth which emphasises ‘light-footed’ connectivity in support of a sharing economy. Co-housing models with shared facilities, taking cues from local vernacular, also help create a compact, pedestrian-centred development.

The team is piloting the concept with the Blenheim Estate, connecting seven villages in a 20-30 year expansion plan. It facilitated the ‘Village Travel Network’ steering group to introduce infrastructure prioritising active transport modes, and proposed 40 affordable Passivhaus-standard homes. 

But what of the protectionism often ingrained in rural communities, asks webinar chair Jan-Carlos Kucharek? There has been surprisingly little: due to the incremental plan, and unpopular pressure for large-scale housing development around Oxfordshire, villagers have been refreshingly welcoming. If successful, VeloCity is a scalable, transferable model for growth. 

Tonkin Liu’s low-carbon Tower of Light and Wall of Energy in central Manchester took inspiration from the city’s industrial past.
Tonkin Liu’s low-carbon Tower of Light and Wall of Energy in central Manchester took inspiration from the city’s industrial past. Credit: David Valinsky

Moving from grassroots to working at height, Steve Pierpoint, specification manager of MSA, discusses the compliance and regulatory issues of fall protection systems, crucial in infrastructure settings. MSA has a strong track record on high-profile and high structures – London’s O2 Skywalk and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, for instance.

There is a hierarchy of fall protection, he explains, which begins with designing out risk, then guarding out the hazard, and relying on fall restraint (which prevents the worker from nearing the danger) and fall arrest systems (a last resort). Importantly, the standard for working at height PPE (BS EN 795) only requires product testing on concrete roof structures. But as anchors perform differently on different materials, MSA tests load control on over 500 roof types.

Pierpoint urges architects to familiarise themselves with the Working at Height Regulations and to consult early on specifications for the safest solutions.
Reaching even loftier heights, Tonkin Liu’s 40m-high Tower of Light and Wall of Energy in Manchester forms the subject of Mike Tonkin’s presentation. The structure encloses flues for Manchester Civic Quarter Heat Network’s low-carbon energy centre, and is the UK’s largest shell lace structure. ‘We wanted to herald low carbon through the delicacy of the structure,’ says Tonkin.

The practice looked to Manchester’s legacy of chimneys for their sculptural forms. The twisting chimneys of historic palaces, for instance, conjure notions of the earth’s rotation and orbit. Inspiration from the natural world included the grid-like structures of bamboo, glass sponges and cactus exoskeletons.

Architecture’s Charge Cars fit-out of a warehouse unit is part assembly plant and part Bond lair – in line with the bespoke electric car brand.
Architecture’s Charge Cars fit-out of a warehouse unit is part assembly plant and part Bond lair – in line with the bespoke electric car brand. Credit: Paul Riddle

hell lace is a technique that makes single surface structures. As the shield is the structure, the carbon footprint is low. At the base of the tower is a wall, 63m long, clad in glazed ceramic tiles in a dynamic interlocking pattern and a window allowing passers-by to view the technology on the brightly coloured inside. ‘It’s not often as an architect you are engaged to make a symbol’ says Tonkin. ‘This is a symbol of change, how green energy will be brought to Manchester’.

Next Olga McMurdo, director of Most Architecture, discusses Charge Cars, Stockley, an RIBA award-winning electric car production factory and business suite housed in a refurbished warehouse ‘high on tech and high on drama’.

The client is a ‘British start-up with a dream’ – to revive a classic 1967 Mustang Fastback as an electric car. Cars are built with high engineering precision and customisation, and the architecture must provide an exclusive client experience. ‘On the other hand, it’s a garage’ says McMurdo.

The building needed offices, garage, micro-factory, R&D labs, prototyping and testing facilities, kitchens and showers. Importantly, both workers and customers would have access throughout the building.

The practice looked at archive images of production assembly lines, but the ‘conveyor-belt’ method wasn’t suitable for highly customised cars. Here, each car has a bay, demarcated by lighting. Surrounding these are specialised rooms – quality control lab, mechanical prototyping and so on – which need specialist treatment such as acoustics.

The facility’s minimal aesthetic creates an exhibition-like experience. R&D studios overlooks mechanical spaces. Leisure spaces are equally serious, as adjustable RGB lighting and turntable decks indicate. Branding, inspired by Richard Feynman’s elegant diagrams of subatomic particles manifests throughout the project.

  • LA Architects’ Winchester Sport and Leisure Park, despite being highly glazed, achieved BREEAM Excellent and EPC A ratings.
    LA Architects’ Winchester Sport and Leisure Park, despite being highly glazed, achieved BREEAM Excellent and EPC A ratings. Credit: Hufton and Crow
  • LA Architects’ Winchester Sport and Leisure Park, despite being highly glazed, achieved BREEAM Excellent and EPC A ratings.
    LA Architects’ Winchester Sport and Leisure Park, despite being highly glazed, achieved BREEAM Excellent and EPC A ratings. Credit: Hufton and Crow
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From car panels to pressed steel panels, Stuart Ruddy, national business development manager at Tata Steel Europe, reveals how this material can in fact be both  sustainable and fire-safe. Use cases include Kohler Mira’s distribution centre, whose Trisobuild Roofing System contributed to an EPC A rating and BREEAM ‘Very Good’. Tata is the first steel company to be approved as an EPD scheme operator, supported by intense life cycle analyses. Products also adhere to BES 6001 for responsible sourcing.

Leigh Pullan and Katie Winter of LA architects round off the webinar with their RIBA award winning Winchester Sport and Leisure Park, a new facility offering a 50m competition pool, 20m learner pool, 8-court sports hall, squash courts and gym. Of interest were the children’s splash pad, introducing cognitive play for babies and the hydrotherapy centre, with integrated accessibility hoists etc, for aquatic physiotherapy.  The building achieved BREEAM Excellent, and an EPC  A rating.

Such facilities require large volumes, so massing was broken down by emphasising transparency and translucency throughout. Clear wayfinding, spaces to congregate, and an open view all contribute to the building’s civic presence and sense of place. In the architect’s words, the building aims to ‘provide a modern gateway to the city that honours [its] rich history and cultural significance’.

So, in answer to Kucharek’s opening question, are such buildings the ‘evolutionary endpoint of the “big shed” ideology originally fetishised by Big Tech and ultimately killed by Digital Tech, leading to the reductio ad absurdum of architecture?’ No, not these. 

Sponsored by: MSA Safety and Tata Steel

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